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Red Hook Experiment

In This Brooklyn Neighborhood, Justice Has a Distinct Community Flavor

Posted Jun 1, 2004 5:30 PM CDT
By Terry Carter

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Judge Alex Calabrese is concerned about the 13-year-old boy sitting in the courtroom gallery.

The youth came to court with his 47-year-old mother, who now stands before Calabrese after testing positive for marijuana, violating her plea agreement.

She has a long rap sheet with lots of arrests for drugs, particularly cocaine, and for prostitution.

“She’s been doing a lot better,” Calabrese whispers to a visitor seated next to him on the bench, explaining that in other courts she had been on a wheel, repeatedly serving about five of every 30 days in jail. “I don’t like to see she’s been using marijuana, but it’s a heck of a lot better than cocaine. And she has significant mental health problems.”

The youth came to court with his 47-year-old mother, who now stands before Calabrese after testing positive for marijuana, violating her plea agreement.

Calabrese asks the boy to stand and be introduced. Slightly chubby and with the same large, bulging eyes as his mother, he confidently answers a few questions, assuring the judge that he’s doing well in school. The scene is too much for the mother, who begins sobbing.

“You’re doing really well; there’s nothing to worry about,” Cala­brese says to her, but the tears and sobs only increase. He asks her lawyer, a public defender, to take the two of them outside the court­room and meet with the court’s clinic director—to make sure the boy is all right and not in need of social services.

“Downtown I had only two tools,” Calabrese says of his former workplace, a more traditional court. “Jail and out of jail. Here we have a whole clinic.”

Welcome to the Red Hook Community Justice Center, located in the down-and-out but somewhat revitalizing Red Hook area of Brooklyn. The court is a first-of-its-kind, ambitious attempt at solving a neighborhood’s problems by getting at their root causes. All misdemean­ors and a couple of low-level felony categories that call for a maximum of a year in jail come through here.

The site is a refurbished Catholic school that anchored the community a few decades ago, back when neighborhood residents loaded ships at the nearby docks in close view of the Statue of Liberty. It was a tough but respect­able working-class neighborhood, the setting for the classic movie On the Waterfront.

The jobs left long ago. In the late 1980s, Life magazine featured Red Hook in a story titled “Downfall of a Neighborhood,” focusing on the raging epidemic of crack cocaine.

The galvanizing incident that led to the creation of the Red Hook Community Justice Center came in late 1992, when a beloved elementary school principal was shot to death in the crossfire between rival drug gangs. Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes not only promised the community that he would bring the killers to justice—he did—but also that he would work to bring justice to the community.

Hynes and Judith Kaye, chief judge of New York state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, worked together to bring the justice center to Red Hook.

Last fall, a news report noted that, for the first time since at least the late 1960s, as far back as records are available, there were no homicides in Red Hook.

The neighborhood is 1 square mile with 12,000 residents, many of them packed into the Red Hook Houses, one of the oldest and largest housing projects in New York City.

To justify the resources flowing into the RHCJC, the catchment area, as the court’s jurisdiction is called, includes two other police precincts and adjoining neighborhoods. But the main effort concerns Red Hook, which is cut off from other neighborhoods by an expressway and water on three sides.

At the justice center, don’t expect to be told to report to another building and another bureaucracy downtown in a few weeks to make arrangements for community service. March upstairs now for an assignment, such as painting over graffiti or cleaning up the park down the street. Got a logistical problem with that because of your kids? There’s a child-care center on site.

“We do in four hours what takes four to six weeks down­town,” says Robert Feldstein, the center’s director. “It’s very real. We’re changing the conversation back to ‘What are we doing with these cases?’ ”

As both a court and a community center for various social services, the RHCJC is the next step in the fast-paced evolution of problem-solving justice that got its start with treatment-oriented drug courts in the late 1980s. In recent years, as the number of drug courts has grown to more than 1,000 nationwide, spinoffs on the theme have emerged. Now, specialty courts deal with domestic violence, mental health, family treatment and other mixes of social problems and crime.

EXAMINING THE CAUSES OF CRIME

The latest twist is the community court bringing together all or many of those concerns, and Red Hook is pushing an even more holistic approach to address the social problems that lead to crime. On-site are teachers who offer GED courses and job training for teens, a job developer, social workers and drug counselors.

Though it is voluntary and hasn’t yet developed a large docket, there is a Youth Court in which peers deal with low-level offenses by juveniles, usually in their first brush with the justice system.

The Red Hook Public Safety Corps, part of the nationwide AmeriCorps VISTA Program for National & Com­mu­nity Service (a domestic version of the Peace Corps), hires 50 residents each year to help at the justice center and work with the community. Those hired receive living stipends and then money toward education or job training. The center has 11 safety corps alumni on its full-time staff.

The RHCJC is geared toward enhancing connections and accountability between the community and the court. There is only one judge—Calabrese. He and others at the center attend community meetings that include police, prosecutors and public defenders. There they form partnerships with various citizens’ groups.

“I learn where the hot spots are in every precinct,” Cala­brese says. “And I start telling defendants the police are watching an area, and it goes out on the grapevine. They’ll move somewhere else, but police will tell you crime goes down.”

The judge calls it a circle of accountability. Many of the center’s employees live in the neighborhood. Public defender W. Brett Taylor walks 10 minutes to work from the nearby Carroll Gardens neighborhood and coaches one of eight Red Hook youth baseball teams, yet another project backed by the RHCJC.

The clerk of court has been known to stop her car at street corners and tell defendants the judge has issued a warrant for them and they’d best get over to the court.

A case manager draws on her observation of one defendant in a recent weekly meeting to go over the progress of those in treatment and counseling. “I saw him sitting on the steps the other morning across from where I drop my children for preschool,” she says, “and judge, his face was as red as your tie. He was drinking.”

Familiarity that breeds accountability goes on inside the courthouse, too. Besides having a single judge as ringlead­er, the prosecutor and public defender are on long-term assignment and each has two assistants there for at least a year.

“We were thinking bigger with Red Hook,” says Kaye, who says she believes hiring the right people, such as Calabrese, is of paramount importance. “This is actually becoming a constructive presence in the community, not just a place to take people for arraignment, sentence and punishment.”

The justice center is Kaye’s baby. She became chief judge in 1993, the same year the first so-called community court opened, the Midtown Community Court near Times Square in Manhattan. That court targets quality-of-life crime—such as prostitution, shoplifting and vandalism—in the business district, which had been losing business because of the unsafe atmosphere. Kaye has been talking about and writing about problem-solving courts ever since.

“There is so much repeat business in the courts, corrosive misconduct, and we had to offer more than recycling people through the court, in the front door and out the back,” she says. “People have to buy into something bigger than just milling cases through the system.”

The Red Hook facility opened in 2000, though the proj­ect began several years before that. Initially, smaller offices that offered services to the community worked with area leaders in developing the court, including its location and programs. In 2000 the court began taking criminal cas­es, and each of the next three years added another jurisdiction: juvenile delinquency, then housing and, most recently, family offenses.

The community court model is based largely on the “broken windows” theory, detailed in the Atlantic Monthly in 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling.

They determined that disorder in a community grows when left unchecked. “If a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired,” they wrote, “all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.”

And as the social order crumbles, bigger crimes follow the smaller ones.

That theory, and its implementation in Red Hook and elsewhere, has its critics. They believe that some of the methods are unproven, and that the community may be more concerned with serious crime and how all of government, from the police to housing authorities, treats them. They may be more interested in fairness and efficiency from the regular courts than in open-ended treatment in an experimental one, the critics contend.

“The Red Hook center is banking a lot on disorder being a large part of the mix producing crime, and the research on the relationship between disorder and crime is very ambiguous,” says Jeffrey Fagan, director of Colum­bia University’s Center for Violence Research and Pre­ven­tion. Fagan is overseeing a study of the early phases of the RHCJC that he expects to publish in the next year.

Some researchers believe that, whether or not such courts are more effective at preserving the rule of law, attention should be paid to unintended consequences from changes in traditional roles. The judge comes down off the bench, sometimes to literally shake hands or slap backs, and becomes a player rather than just an impartial umpire. The prosecutor and defense lawyer are part of the same team, working on the long-term best interests of individual defendants and the community.

The traditional concept of justice is sometimes stood on its head. “The dominant paradigm is healing people and making them well, and that’s a new understanding of the essence of justice,” says James L. Nolan Jr., a Williams College so­ciologist who has studied drug courts and now is focusing on the variety of problem-solving courts. “We need to be thoughtful about what innovations are doing. ... What adjustments are made as the players assume new roles? It’s a very radical new way of thinking.”

The community court does bring novel pressures on prosecutors and, particularly, on defense lawyers. Taylor, the public defender, says that the extensive intake interviews for defendants—available to Judge Calabrese with a mouse click on the bench—proved problematic early on.

“They got into things like drug history and mental illness, not appropriate information for judges and prosecutors at the early stage,” says Taylor. “A problem came up when some cases moved downtown” to other, traditional courts after the defendants didn’t comply with court orders. “That information went with them and was used against them. We’ve agreed to limit the information and keep it here. It’s a constant battle.”

On the other side of the admittedly lowered fence, prosecutor Gerianne Abriano recalls a case in which, at the request of a police captain, she pleaded with Judge Calabrese to send a defendant to inpatient drug treatment. The addict’s rap sheet for petty theft, particularly breaking into cars, was so long that even the judge said the man was a menace and should go to jail.

But Abriano got her way. And the defendant got away. As he was being escorted to a nearby treatment facility, he ran off, yelling, “Catch me if you can.” A couple of days later, police did.

“I was mortified,” Abriano says. “I know it’s strange for a prosecutor to be begging for treatment rather than jail, but I figured it was a no-lose situation for us. I knew if he absconded, they’d catch him.”

And sometimes the traditional adversarial roles take over.

“Sometimes they fight over a case because of a bad search or whatever,” Calabrese says. “Then the Consti­tution comes first and problem-solving comes later.”

This new give-and-take in the justice system is all part of what Judge Kaye calls “the experiment.” If something works, they’ll keep doing it. If not, they’ll try something else.

For Kaye, it is a matter of here and now.

“If you want to do something, you’re bound to have critics,” she says. “I haven’t heard anybody with a good answer as to what’s better.”

A MODEL OF JUSTICE

The RHCJC is catching on. site visits by foreign justice officials have become commonplace. A community justice center modeled after Red Hook will open in Liv­erpool, England, this year. Several other countries are working on similar models. Rhode Island is considering a public-private partnership like the Center for Court In­novation, the one behind the New York specialty courts, including Red Hook. The CCI is an independent organization working as the New York court system’s research and development arm.

“We’re a think tank with research, roundtable discussions and white papers,” says CCI director Greg Berman. “But we are not just stroking our metaphysical beards. We want to have an impact in the real world. We have an explicit mandate to investigate problems in the courts, come up with new ideas and approaches, and go out and test them in the real world.”

The CCI was launched by the Fund for the City of New York, itself funded by the Ford Foundation, as part of the effort that led to the creation of the Midtown Com­mu­nity Court in 1993.

At first blush, such courts would seem the creatures of liberal politics, and the therapeutic model reinforces that. But conservatives support the efforts, too.

Sentences in these courts tend to be tougher on low-level crime. Of­ten the judge orders the defendant to get counseling or treatment that lasts for months or years instead of simply meting out a brief jail sentence or none at all. And nearly everyone, regardless of political stripe, is concerned about finding effective ways to eliminate crime.

The growth and development of drug courts and more recently other specialty court initiatives had been fueled considerably by seed money to states and localities from the Clinton administration, through the Justice Depart­ment’s Office of Justice Programs.

“For those of us who care about this, there was trepidation about what the Bush administration would do,” says Berman. “Well, they’ve been very supportive.”

But that federal help is seed money. Eventually, states and localities have to carry the full load. With the state’s top judge behind the movement, New York thus far has funded the various courts. But there are problems elsewhere.

Portland, Ore., one of the early adopters of drug courts, expanded to community courts. Recently, though, it has begun to close courtrooms in the neighborhoods and pull them back to one centralized location.

Multnomah County District Attorney Michael D. Schrunk, the driving force behind those courts, says he remains a strong proponent of problem-solving courts.

“But, like everyone else, we’re in a budget crisis.”

Last year, Denver ended its experiment with drug courts. It had been one of the earliest to develop them, starting in 1993. One of the court’s judges, Morris B. Hoff­man, has been an outspoken critic of them, especially in law reviews and panel discussions.

The creation of drug courts prompted police to widen their net for ever-smaller drug busts, and soon the number of defendants sent to prison tripled, Hoffman says. He also doesn’t believe recidivism was reduced signif­icantly.

But he admits that money—not effectiveness—spelled the end of Den­- ver’s drug courts.

“I’d like to say that the other judges agree with me that the drug courts are not good,” Hoffman says. “But it was a matter of resource allocation. With the federal seed money, we’ll get to the point that every two-horse town has a drug court, but will they stay?”

For now, it seems, they are not only staying in New York, they’re multiplying. CCI director Berman says those seeking to measure success always ask about recidivism, and he doesn’t want to seem a Pollyanna about it by arguing that other factors are very important. And he knows that a couple of days of community service won’t make up for a lifetime of drug addiction, dysfunctional families or related problems.

But he does believe drug treatment and job training can have a long-term impact on some defendants.

“And this project is more than just solving problems with individual defendants,” Berman explains. “It’s to reduce neighborhood fear and improve perceptions of the quality of life and faith in government and justice. I chafe at recidivism as the sole measure of success or failure. It is one of many.”

Terry Carter is a senior writer for the ABA Journal. His e-mail address is terryPcarter@cox.net.

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